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Transcript

Transcript from the entire program CREATING ALTERNATIVE FUTURES. Marvin Harris was interviewed by series producer Hazel Henderson, together with futurist James Robertson.

Hazel Henderson

Hello, I'm Hazel Henderson, and I have two guests today to help me explore the rapid technological and economic changes that are now racking all industrial societies. First, Professor Marvin Harris, graduate research professor, department of anthropology, here at the University of Florida. His latest book is America Now. And secondly, James Robertson, leading futurist in Britain whose latest book is The Sane Alternative. So, I think where we should start this conversation is to ask you both, and starting with Marvin, how do you see this rapid technological and economic change affecting industrial societies.

Marvin Harris

Well the way I like to describe it Hazel, is that we've moved into a phase of hyper-industrial society. Formerly the main thrust of our industrial machinery was aimed at producing things, goods. While this continues to be important, nonetheless the greatest expansion that has occurred in our industrial economic base has been in the direction of goods and services. The industrialization of goods and services is what's happened. And this has brought with it enormous changes in the structure of our family, in sex roles, in religion, and in many other dimensions of society.

Hazel Henderson

Yes. How do you see these changes, James?

James Robertson

I agree with Marvin about what has happened so far. But the question that interests me is what's going to happen next. Now there it seems to me there are two possibilities. Either we try to go ahead with that same process you've talked about and industrialize and professionalize and institutionalize - make people even more dependent than they are now on big organizations and specialisms and experts - that's a kind of super service society, or we move in the other direction and enable people to do more for themselves. And you might call that a kind of self-service society. But not just self - self and mutual aid.

Marvin Harris

Of course we're going to have continue under any circumstances to produce the material necessities, and that will always be present. The big problematical issue is how will high-tech - the robotization, computerization of our industrial system - how will high-tech effect such issues as the work week, the form of work, whether it's in the factory or in the home. All these issues it seems to me are very much in doubt. I am very pleased to be speaking with a futurist.

James Robertson

Two futurists.

Marvin Harris

Two futurists.

Hazel Henderson

Let me pick up right there because I think part of your analysis that I think fits very much with my own, the importance - first of all we have to start with the material pie. I mean we do have this thing now where we have a cornucopia of goods and services, but they are rather unequally distributed and it's going to be very hard to get people to sort of look forward when they're still sort of fighting over the basic necessities. And I think that inasmuch as we sort of focus - I focused a great deal for example of these kind of changes and the new limitation on simply having the material pie grow. And this implies that we have to look at different sorts of distribution systems. I mean where it comes together for me is with the microprocessor revolution. And now the issue is firmly on the agenda - how are we going to distribute the fruits of this technological virtuosity? We can distribute it by having shorter workweeks. We can distribute it with Milton Friedman's idea the negative income tax. But it's not going to go away. I mean we have 33 million unemployed now in industrial countries and so these are the kind of agenda ideas which force the society to face up to really creating a new map and coming up with some very different prescriptions.

Marvin Harris

The prescriptions definitely have to be different. The question is can the prescriptions be fulfilled. What are the - how real can our predictions about alternative courses be at this point.

James Robertson

Going back to what you said or what is happening now. I think two contradictory things are happening now and technology is a very good case. There are bigger and bigger technologies being developed, like nuclear power stations, for example, which are making people, tiny little people dependant at the end of a long line on a few very clever people, very powerful people, running these big systems. On the other hand there are very miniaturized, small-scale technologies like small-scale robots. Home computers are one that everyone talks about, but that's by no means the only one. And here we have two directly conflicting possibilities for the future. Either power and activity is taken away even further from people into these big big technological systems, or we can bring activity back into people's homes and into people's local villages. I was talking to someone from a robot firm the other day, and he was saying that in ten years time there will be powerful little robots available to put in your backyard or your garage at the cost today of a family car. So you've got a tremendous possibility here for bringing work back into the home and the village, the small community when the industrial revolution drove them out again.

Hazel Henderson

This reminds me of something that our friend Alvin Toffler was saying on one of these programs. And he was laying out this scenario also of the electronic cottage, and I see the microprocessor revolution really as centralizing, because although it decentralizes on the geographic material plane, it centralizes the information and software. There has to be, first of all that high-technology production underlies not only nuclear... I mean the high technology of the computer makes possible electronic funds transfer banking which put us into a global capital flow loop which speeds everything up and takes away control even the politician in the nation state. In the same way it's pre-empting the control we have over the military because it gets us down to faster and faster lead times before the system goes on automatic and they just kind of release the missile exchange, and even the President can't intercept the decision-making process. So I think that these systems - to kid ourselves that the computer-based systems are decentralizing, it's an effect, I call it electronic sharecropping. At the level of the phenomenon everybody can going around eating sprouts and wearing homemade clothes and there can be solar collectors and everybody will think oh isn't this beautiful and de-centralized, but actually if they're not in the electronic money loop and if they can't intercept with the military thing, then how can that be decentralizing.

Marvin Harris

The fact of the matter is I agree very much with what you just said in terms of the two dominant institutions of our time - the military defense complex and multi-national corporations. Both of these are enormously centralizing forces that really determine a very large share of everyday activity in the industrial nations of the world. And both of these are clearly utterly dependent upon the technological breakthroughs which we associate with high technology. I mean high technology makes it possible for the Ford Motor Company now to be building cars in 28 different countries. Because in the one centralized office, the database is essential for keeping track of all those different assembly lines, and matching up parts in Brazil with parts in Spain with parts in the United States. That's all dependent upon our satellite transmissions and our high speed computers and microprocessors and so forth. And needless to say, the entire military operation depends upon greater and greater infusions of high tech into their operations. So as one looks at what's happening right now, one would have to say that the forces that are moving us toward ever greater centralization, ever greater concentrations of power have the upper hand.

James Robertson

I wouldn't agree with that, I mean I -

Marvin Harris

I know, I said that because I knew you wouldn't...

[laughter]

James Robertson

I agree that there is that powerful force of centralization, but even in the big multi-national companies there's a very powerful force of decentralization. In fact it's generally understood I would say now among corporate leaders that the name of the game is to decentralize. There are people talking about the age of the last corporation's has now peeked, and they're on the downtrend and what we're going to see in thirty or forty years time is them having decentralized into what some people call confederations of small entrepreneurial groups. Now it seems to me that you've got this contradiction built into what is happening and the question for me is really to decide which way you want this thing to go, and then decide how to help it go that way.

Marvin Harris

Well first I think there's a factual problem there. If we consider the rate of formation of conglomerates and mergers, while the actual rate is lower than it has been in the past, nonetheless the size of the mergers is getting larger. So we had General Motors merging with Toyota interests, and we had two of the largest steel companies coming together. So I really think factually the continuing trend is towards larger and larger organizations. Now there is a counter trend and that's smaller factories.

Hazel Henderson

Yes, if I can just jump in on this one, this counter trend is much larger, I believe, than anyone thinks it is, and I believe this is so because of the illusion of the whole business of what we quantify, what kind of social science research and what kind of economic research we make our maps out of. And if the statisticians are pointing their statistical cameras of that phenomenon and not that phenomenon, then you're going to get a very crazy sort of map in terms of how you operate the system. So what I see happening is that we have all this official stuff which is absolutely true, and that is this tendency to decentralization, and I keep my eye very closely on that. But at the same time, I know that what is going on in the informal areas of the society where it's not quantified in money, and nobody's paying attention to it in the official GNP because no money's changing hands and that sort of stuff, is being missed entirely. And the reason that I have been in contact with James for a decade is because James maps this sort of underbelly of what's going on, and I think we both feel kind of ambivalent about whether we would like to see the social scientists quantify it, because then if they do, all that Washington and London wants to tax it.

Marvin Harris

But one could interpret that in two ways - it could be one as a positive force, and another as a kind of desperation.

Hazel Henderson

It's both I think.

Marvin Harris

It's both, probably, yeah.

Hazel Henderson

The way I like to look at it is that it is the ultimate safety net. You have to allow people a little space to reposition themselves. If they lose faith in money, and they lose faith in dominant institutions, and they got fired from that corporation that they thought was going to carry them from womb to tomb, then the first thing they do is sort of thrash around and say my gosh we could double up in housing, and we can barter some services from each other, and we have to allow that I think without necessarily saying oh well we don't have to worry about those people now because there is this sort of safety net. But is there ways you think we might augment that safety net and make it more positive. What do you think?

James Robertson

I see the whole thing in a slightly different way. I see our activities in society as split into two different sorts. One, the underground economy isn't quite the right word for it, I prefer the phrase the informal economy because that embraces all the activities that people do for themselves and one another. Like looking after children, like cooking the meals, like digging a garden, the multitude of activities that people do when their not either earning money or spending money, they're doing it for themselves and one another as a person to a person. And my view is that that is not a marginal part of activity, it's not just a little odd bit of people bartering this that or the other, or trying to tax dodge, or the negative aspect of where we've reach, that that is actually the growth area for the future, both in social terms and personal terms and economic terms. SO I see that as the wave of the future, if you like.

Hazel Henderson

I would agree with you, while taking into account my fear that at some point we might actually blow it with the whole centralized military thing. It's like there's a countdown with on the centralized military thing. And there is this other game, and somehow I'd like to think about helping people to get into the other game, and see the possibilities of the other game.

Marvin Harris

Well the other game is double-edged. For example, we're talking about enlarging the sphere of activities engaged in by people whose base is the home. But as we sit here we know very well that the nature of the home is undergoing very rapid change in response to those mega forces which I referred to before, of the hyper-industrial society. We know that as people are exchanging services, such as a carpenter for a plumber, at the same time we know that women have been drawn out of the house and into the labor force at an astonishing rate in the United States. It's going very fast since World War II, so that 50% of the labor force is women now. And what are they doing? Well most of them are in these service occupation.

Hazel Henderson

I mean like I said, we monetized cooking. I mean James and I went for breakfast this morning, and there we were, we were thinking, my gosh that woman that's no longer cooking breakfast for her family, they have the family and everybody has to come to McDonald's now, and she's cooking for her family but she's at McDonald's and they're having to pay, and so we're monetizing cooking that's all we're doing.

Marvin Harris

And she's getting paid about what she was getting paid when she was in the home. Of course she didn't actually receive a pay check, but it was very little for her domestic services. And despite the many glamorous jobs which women have been able to move into, the majority of women have moved into the lower paying sectors of the economy, the service and information portions of our economy, and they earn as is well know, something in the neighborhood of fifty-eight or fifty-nine percent of the average male's income, and I'm using this as evidence in support of my contention that there's a double-edge to this other economy. A lot of people are quite desperate. The women have not gone into the labor force simply because they want to enlarge their horizons and get to see the rest of the world. There's been dire necessity. And alot of the bartering represents dire necessity.

James Robertson

You have to look at this in long historical terms I think. The reason for this is that it's just another step in driving people out of their places of living where they actually live, their homes, to go and do work somewhere else on something that doesn't matter very much to them, because they need to get money in order to buy what they need. The whole historical origin of this was when people no longer had access to land, and they no longer had access to what we now call the capital needed as the base for their own work. This happened very clearly in England where the poor people - the ordinary people were driven off the land - they used to work for themselves on the land, they were driven off it, they became paid labor, the men first of all had to go to factories, and now the women have, so we're repeating a long historical process of driving people out of their homes to do something away out of their homes and the localities where they live, which have now become a desert. Homes are little boxes where nothing happens. People go off and do something somewhere else. And it seems to me the question for the future, can we revitalize and regenerate what happens where people actually live. I agree with you at the moment that that's not happening.

Marvin Harris

Well the problem there James, is precisely that the nature of the home is changing as we're observing, as we're talking about it. And these enormous forces that have driven women into the labor market have also acted to reduce the level of fertility and the birth rate on the long-term trends, these have come down with remarkable rapidity after World War II.

Hazel Henderson

Nobody can afford to have children anymore.

Marvin Harris

Yes. The latest Department of Labor statistics on it is that it's over $300,000 to rear a middle-class child from birth to college age. So alot of people are definitely hesitating about having large families anymore or any families. The number of women who are now saying they don't want to have any children has also increased very rapidly, so I'm a little concerned about what happens in your desirable future - a future whose general contours I would want to see come into being, I'm a little concerned about the role you are assigning to the home and family, because it may not be there.

Hazel Henderson

I think that what this brings up really is the fundamental question, I think all of our societies are having to deal with fundamental questions like now, like the fundamental question which work are we going to consider the most valuable, and which work are we going to pay for in cash, and which work will be done in the community, everything is being reconfigured, and we're trying to make new maps of this. And I think that where that seems to lead people at the moment, is that it's going so fast that people are very confused. I was very interested Marvin that you were talking about how in times of rapid social economic technological change, people get into cults and suddenly there seems to be all this blossoming of strange religions. Well now here's another piece of evidence that we see in all industrial societies, don't we?

Marvin Harris

Well I think that we have to look at the cults from a slightly different point of view then is the conventional perspective. A lot of people think that the cults are an outgrowth of the attempt to escape the materialist values of Western civilization, to link up with the wisdom of the East and oriental religions, where as a matter of fact, the most vigorous movements in the United States as far as religion is concerned are the Protestant fundamental churches which have moved in the direction of tapping alot of grassroots sentiments of dissatisfaction concerning the state of affairs. And what both types of cults indicate to me is that there is an enormous accumulation of frustration and resentment that exists in the United States right now as a result of the failure of our industrial society to provide the material fulfillment which people expected.

Hazel Henderson

And that they see on TV, that they're supposed to buy this...

Marvin Harris

So that's another one of the problems that we have to get over in going from here to the desirable future. Because there's enormous potential for people opting not for a rational future but opting for a mystified future in which we go backwards instead of forward.

James Robertson

This going back, I agree with you, that can't be done, but there is a sense in which it's a very important element in the desirable future, which is that in some respects we do go back, in some respects we recover some of the desirable features of the way people used to live in the past. They used to live as persons with persons, rather than as employees and customers and patients and in those little institutional roles. I think when you mention the Protestant churches over here are coming strong, that's probably a search by people to recover what was valuable in the past and the challenge it seems to me is whether we can recover what was valuable in the past in some of these respects, but do it on the basis of what we've learned in the industrial age, on the basis of the technology that we have. Can we use the technology for people, instead of having the people used for the technology.

Hazel Henderson

That's a highly political question, and I want to sort of end this up on the whole subject of what do we do. I know what I do - I began to write books about this because I was sort of anxious about it and wanted to communicate my anxiety, that we weren't making very sensible technological choice, we didn't even know what choices were being made for us in somebody's research lab. You know. And so what I find myself doing is being in many ways a compulsive activist. I like to communicate, and I like to try to put people together who are trying to implement different solutions. SO I'd like to ask both of you what do you do about it?

Marvin Harris

You do more.

[laughter]

James Robertson

One thing I believe is very important is people who feel they want to can change their own way of living, lifestyles people call this. They can become somewhat less dependent of spending all their in their paid jobs and they can use that time and energy to do more - might be grow some of their own food, might be a whole lot of things. But changing their own lifestyles, which affects that little bit of society around them, actually where real people are, is one way to do it. It's not the only way, but I think it's a very important way.

Hazel Henderson

So that you would be careful about what bank you put your savings in, and you would want to approve of the policies of institutions and you'd want to support local farmers so you might want to buy from local markets. I see.

James Robertson

That's right. I mean making decisions about all the ways you live in your ordinary life, how you spend your money, where you invest it, all that stuff you say yes, and that's all very effective action.

Hazel Henderson

Yeah I think so too. What do you think?

Marvin Harris

Well as an anthropologist I've spent my whole life trying to communicate to students and to readers of my books and people to listen to me wherever, I've tried to show that there are many varieties of cultures that existed in the past, that exist now, and that it's up to us as individuals to become more knowledgeable concerning the causes of social life. Most of us think we have a pretty good grasp on how to get around on a daily basis, but we also suspect that there are enormous forces of an impersonal sort determining alot of what we do, sometimes against our better judgment. And I think it's important as a step towards the future for us to concentrate on understanding the present and the past.

Hazel Henderson

I would very much agree. We can all do all of these things simultaneously I think that people can communicate new maps to each other, and I think that the function of explanation, making society more accessible, the kind of stuff you do, Marvin, where you get people out - like get the fish out of the water, and show people how all these things have been done in the past in different ways and other cultures to enrich the choices. I think we all do that with our books but we also can act within our communities. Well I guess we're practically at the end of this, the time went very quickly. But for me that all gets wrapped up in Rene Deboses wonderful phrase thinking globally acting locally, that there's no dichotomy between whether a social action means going off in the woods and growing your own food, or doing politics. We all do both, don't we?

Marvin Harris

Well I think that's one thing that I would always emphasize, that there's no escaping that. Whether we don't act or we do, we're making our contribution to the future.

Hazel Henderson

Yes I think that's a tremendously important point really to leave this discussion. So be your own leader is what we'd like to say.

James Robertson

Here here.

Hazel Henderson

Thank you so much.